March 28, 2012, by Sean Matthews

Resisting internationalisation: thinking about some contradictions in transnational education

Friday 16 March. To the Malaysia Ministry of Education/University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus event ‘Transnational Education: Opportunities and Challenges in the 21st Century – Malaysian and European Perspectives’, at the Kuala Lumpur Conference Centre. After the necessary pleasantries and platitudes from the diplomats and politicians we were treated to some searching, provocative reflections on the Bologna process, and the meanings of internationalisation, or transnational education, in both the Malaysian context and the European. Of particular interest, for me, was a presentation by Prof. Tan Sri Dato’ Dzulkifli Abdul Razak.

In 2011, Dzulkifli stood down from the University Sains Malaysia after a decade as Vice Chancellor to lead a new initiative, Albukhary International University, a not-for-profit, philanthropic institution dedicated to opening the path to Higher Education for underprivileged students from around the world. He’s a well-known figure in Malaysia for his intelligent and often trenchant commentaries in his column for the New Sunday Times, collected as a series of volumes entitled Voicing Concern, as much as for his enlightened stewardship of USM and thoughtful contributions to Education policy debate in the region and, indeed, internationally – he was recently nominated First Vice-President of the International Association of Universities (IAU), having previously been President of the Association of Southeast Asian Institutions of Higher Learning (2007-2008).

Dzulkifli raised some challenging questions. The core of his talk was a valuable warning that for the most part ‘transnational education’ has been, and continues to be, coterminous with ‘western’ (or ‘northern’) educational modes being transposed to ‘eastern’ (or ‘southern’) peoples and contexts. Both ‘first wave’ internationalisation (the migration of eastern/southern students to western/northern institutions), and ‘second wave’ internationalisation (the proliferation of western/northern branch campuses, partnerships, franchises in the east/south), have been consistent with the extension of western political and economic hegemony, above all the export of a neoliberal, marketized and commodified approach to learning. This is not simply an ideological issue, it is also experienced in the predominance of a wide range of ‘western/northern’ disciplinary, theoretical and ethical assumptions about educational purposes and practices. Whole intellectual traditions, associated with what we might call Muslim, Confucian, Asian, or African ways of seeing and knowing, have been at once absorbed and effaced, have been quite literally written out of history. We need reminding, Dzulkifli rightly maintained, of values and insights which flourished in what the eurocentric Enlightenment laughingly called the ‘Dark Ages’, work which still continues, struggling for articulation and recognition at the margins of the contemporary educational hegemony. The West/North ignores these counter-currents and alternative histories, and the disenfranchised and culturally marginalized peoples they represent, not only to its intellectual and scholarly detriment, but also at its peril. Internationalisation, in the classroom as much as the street, can involve many and often violent forms of debate.

These are important positions to reaffirm, and Dzulkifli’s closing remarks about the objectives of the Albukhary Foundation, and a need to promote ‘Education for Being’ as opposed to ‘Education for Having’ were powerful and moving. But the contrarian in me felt that he skated over some important contradications and caveats, and was also himself guilty of overlooking strong counter-hegemonic currents, both emergent and residual, within the history of internationalisation and transnational education.

First, there is the familiar allegation that quibbling about values and epistemology butters no parsnips, much less brings water to the thirsty, food to the starving, electricity to the powerless. For the time being, our modes of researching and teaching the core competencies in engineering and hard sciences must suffice, given the pressing threats we face. There are urgent questions of priority, particularly in regard to development, and the place of education in development, and well-intentioned hand-wringing about university policy and practice is to many a distraction from more immediate tasks. Jacques Derrida’s thoughts about poisons and cures in Plato’s Pharmacy come to mind (we may have to swallow something we don’t like in order to achieve goals which we do – though it’s also possible it might poison us in the long run), along with Raymond Williams’s insistence, in ‘Culture is Ordinary’ and elsewhere, that the ‘preservation’ of cultural values should never be at the expense of fundamental improvements to material standards of living.

Second, inherent in Dzulkifli’s position is the risk that his plea for a return to the discourse of values and ethics might in practice be associated with forms of conservative nationalism and religious exceptionalism severely in tension with the hospitable position he apparently espouses. Dzulkifli made a comment, in passing, about the coincidence, in February 2011, of the assertion by British Prime Minister David Cameron that ‘multiculturalism’, as a policy and project, had failed in the UK, with a march by the English Defence League against Muslim immigration. This conjuncture, Dzulkifli suggested, was symptomatic of the inherent orientalism, islamophobia and chauvinism of the West. The same argument could be levelled at his own appeal to ‘Muslim’ and/or ‘Malay’ values. The company he keeps could be both Malaysian Prime Minister Najib, with his troubling rhetoric of defending Putrajaya [the seat of government] to the last drop of Malay blood sitting uneasily with the vagaries of his ‘1Malaysia’ concept, and Ibrahim Ali, head of the ultra-nationalist Perkasa organisation, mouthpiece for some revolting and extreme Malay supremacist dogma. This is not unconnected with concerns about the Albukhary Foundation itself. The source of its vast resources are, in many eyes, at best ethically suspect, given the business career of the eponymous benefactor. In Q&A, Professor Dzulkifli declined to comment on this issue.

These contradictions are not new, and have been the staple of much debate – East, West, North and South – about the internationalisation of Higher Education, just as much as they have been at the heart of postcolonial and subaltern studies for many decades. These are debates of which I am confident Professor Dzulkifli is most fully aware – it was, indeed, pleasing to see a Vice Chancellor engaging with them. What he might also have conceded is that the Bologna process, for all its potential problems of standardisation and homogenisation, was also born of the desire for enduring peace in the European area after the disastrous experience of near-total war. ASEAN performs a similar function, and has one of its goals a collective and supra-national resistance to the very hegemonic forces Dzulkifli outlines. The ‘harmonisation’ process in the European Higher Education sector has lessons for us all, not all of them positive (at the same conference, Professor Morshidi Sirat, from the Malaysian Department of Higher Education, in the Ministry of Higher Education, reflected on precisely these issues), but there is maybe more to learn from the long years of wrangling over definition and implementation than he allows. Moreover, there are strong and widespread currents of educational thinking, of theoretical and methodological innovation, quite openly resistant to the Northern/Western educational hegemony, indeed very strongly represented in the contemporary academy. One need go no further than the powerful and enduring examples of Paolo Freire or Franz Fanon to point to whole traditions of postcolonial and cosmopolitan thinking which have resisted, and continue to resist, the prevailing dominant.

Dr. Sean Matthews  (Director of Studies of the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus)

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